Former Defense Sec Gates backs Obama on Iran sanctions

McClatchy Washington BureauJanuary 17, 2014 

Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates speaks at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast about some of the revelations in his new memoir

MICHAEL BONFIGLI/THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR

Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates says President Obama is "absolutely right" to oppose congressional efforts to impose additional sanctions on Iran's government -- as he negotiates with Tehran to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

"As hard as it is for everyone to deal with, we may actually be seeing success in a policy," Gates said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters, noting that the U.S. since the Clinton administration has "enormously" tightened sanctions against Iran, "with the sole purpose of bringing them to the negotiating table" to resolve their nuclear weapons ambitions.

"They're at the table," Gates said of the Iranians. "I think to add sanctions right now really would run a very high risk of blowing it all up."

Still, Gates equivocated that he does see a benefit in "some kind of message" -- even legislation -- that warns the Iranians that if the current negotiations fail, the country will face tighter sanctions than ever.

"I think that would strengthen the administration's hand in negotiating with the Iranians," he said. "We worry all the time about the hardliners in Iran, maybe we ought to let them worry a little bit about the hardliners in the United States when it comes to these sanctions."

Gates addressed a number of revelations in his new book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, suggesting that early coverage -- particularly Bob Woodward's take in the Washington Post -- was overblown and made it seem like a critique of Obama's handling of the war in Afghanistan.

"I think that as a growing number of journalists and others got copies of the book and read it during the days after the Post article I think the message began to rebalance itself, that this was not an anti-Obama book, it was much more nuanced than than that," Gates said. "I had a lot of very positive things to say about President Obama."

Still, Gates had some criticism for Obama at the breakfast, particularly in his dealings with Congress -- (which, in Gates' book, comes in for some of his harshest criticism.) He noted that Obama only this week had Democratic senators over to the White House "for martinis" and to ask them not to impose new Iran sanctions.

"My view is that should have started January 21st, 2009," Gates said.

With Iran, Gates said it's important to give Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry "open field running" for the six months of negotiations.

"Let's see what happens," he said, nevertheless adding a note of caution that "no one is better" at "slow rolling" negotiations than the Iranians.

"The administration ought to impose a firm day deadline and that's when the negotiations are over," he said.

He also cautioned that "at a minimum" the result of the negotiations can't leave Iran with the ability to "dash to a weapon in a relatively short period of time."

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